The Pianoforte and its Precursors, the Clavichord and the Harpsichord

The pianoforte is an instrument too well known to require description here. Its characteristic peculiarity, as distinguished from the instruments from which it was derived, the harpsichord and the clavichord, is that the tone produced from its strings can be made soft or loud at the pleasure of the performer. The means by which these effects are produced consist in hammers connected with the keys, and so arranged that the performer can, by graduating his touch, make them strike the strings with varying degrees of force, with the effect of eliciting every degree of sonority of which the strings are capable.

The pianoforte was invented in Italy, at the beginning of the eighteenth century. The first pianofortes of which we have any authentic information were made in Florence, by Bartholomew Cristofori, in 1709. These instruments were the result of efforts to improve the harpsichord, so as to make it capable of producing tones of various degrees of power. This need was everywhere felt, and other makers of harpsichords, in other countries, were also engaged in attempting to solve this problem. The harpsichord and clavichord had this in common with the pianoforte; they had metallic strings, stretched horizontally in a frame over a sounding board, and were played by means of keys. But the strings of the harpsichord were snapped, by means of crow’s quills, and those of the clavichord were set in vibration by means of a push from a small brass wedge or “tangent,” set in the end of the keys. This latter instrument already had some capability of gradations of power, and for this reason it was a favorite with the best musicians. It required great delicacy of touch, and in the hands of a master was, within certain limits, a very expressive instrument. But strings vibrated in this manner were necessarily thin and light, and produced only soft and delicate tones.

The harpsichord also had light strings, and its tones were weak. It was not only impossible to produce much variation in the power of the tone, but no powerful tone could be obtained from any string, whether light or heavy, by any such methods of producing vibration. Heavy strings, especially, must be struck, not snapped nor pushed, in order to produce their maximum of tone; and it was in the direction of heavy strings and a larger sounding board that progress was to be made toward an increase of sonority, after the means had been found of producing the greatest amount of tone of which the lighter strings were capable, as well as of varying their power.

In the early part of the last century, then, the clavichord and harpsichord had reached the limit of their development, and musicians and instrument makers were anxiously striving to secure results of which these instruments were intrinsically incapable. But, though Cristofori, and others of his contemporaries and immediate successors, hit on the right principle, the first crude applications of it were not immediately successful. The new instruments did not find favor with players for a long time. This was partly because of the still remaining defects of their construction, for much time was required to perfect the complicated action of the pianoforte so as to secure promptness, delicacy and power of touch, to damp the strings properly, to remove the hammer from the string as soon as it had struck, and have it in readiness for an instant repetition of the stroke. It was also partly due, perhaps, to the fact that players accustomed to the older instruments could not readily find themselves at home with the new mechanism, and preferred that with which they were familiar. At any rate, so great a musician and player as J. S. Bach, condemned the Silbermann pianofortes shown him in 1726, as being heavy in touch, and weak in the treble; his son, C. P. E. Bach, is said always to have preferred the clavichord, and even Mozart, to the end of his life, was a harpsichord player, rather than a pianist.

But toward the end of the century, great improvements were made in the construction of the pianoforte; the number of compositions specially calculated for the capabilities of the instrument had greatly increased; the younger musicians had became familiar with its manipulation; and by the beginning of the present century, the clavichord and harpsichord were driven forever out of use.

In closing this brief sketch, it remains to give a passing glance at two other instruments, the spinet and virginals. Concerning these it is only necessary to say that they were merely varieties of the harpsichord, differing from it only in shape and size, but not in principle, much as square and upright pianofortes differ from a concert grand, which is shaped like the old harpsichords.